Community Acuity (4) leading and following: a dance of equals

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Cristina Devecchi (@dmc_devecchi) Associate Professor in Education, University of Northampton.

There has been much written on leadership and followership. Little, however, has been written on how either of them impact on the PhD supervision, or how the process works. Rather, we stand by our pre-figured views of the idealised supervision and, similarly, preconceived ideas about the dichotomy between leaders and followers. My experience tells me that when it comes to PhD supervision the distinction is blurred and our ideas about leadership are out dated.

Let me start with telling you why I am reflecting on this topic. Every year I give a talk about learning theories and PhD supervision. The intent is to get our new supervisors to think about supervision as a learning process and make them reflect on the teaching strategies that they apply intuitively, and other strategies which they might like to use. At the last of these events, I listed a number of roles supervisors can play, such as: manager, facilitator, mentor, friend, colleague, follower and … leader. Colleagues were asked to discuss the roles on the basis of their experience as previous PhD students and current undergraduate and Master’s supervisors.

The first interesting outcome was the extent to which my colleagues viewed supervision in idealised terms. In their view, supervising PhD students was a meeting of equals and the supervisor was a benign friend and mentor whose role was to be a facilitator enthused with the passion for the subject and the love for research. Having supervised quite a number of students, I was unsure whether to break the ‘bad’ news to them. But what surprised me the most was the very strong negative views colleagues had about leadership. It turned out that my colleagues’ passionate views against supervisors being leaders was justified by their understanding of leaders as almost despotic tyrants. Similar views coloured their discussion about supervisors being managers as well. Such outcomes made me reflect on what being a leader, and being a follower, actually involve.

I have no problem to say that as a supervisor I see myself as both leader and follower, as manager and mentor, as facilitator and friend. A PhD is more than just a research project, or the technicalities of developing a research design, or the skills of writing a thesis. A PhD is a journey during which the actual project runs parallel to life, its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures. I have had the pleasure of sharing with my students their marriages and new-born babies, and the need to comfort them through divorce, job losses and family deaths. Throughout the ups and downs, the starts and stops, the achievements and drawbacks, students and supervisors are like dancers. On this imaginary dance floor, it takes empathy, experience, skills and the ability to craft out of one’s knowledge the best way forward. At times, supervisors need to lead, to set the vision and to nurture the student to follow it. At other times, they are required to be managers, to create targets and evaluate performance. At times one needs to mentor, facilitate, and empathise. But none of this can happen if a supervisor is not willing to follow, to let the student lead you where you have not gone before. It matters not whether this is a new conceptual framework, or an exciting new finding. It matters to have the confidence to trust oneself and one’s students to lead and follow in a dance of equals.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.